Sunday chairmaking

First – some business announcements – I planned on assembling one of my JA-ladderback chairs today. I only got half of it done, but had a good excuse. Pret, Paula & I spent the morning exploring details about Greenwood Fest 2019 – yup, you heard me right – it’s official, mostly. There will be GWF19. We pretty much knew there would be, but we actually all said it out loud today.

Some workshop offerings –  then the woodworking part. There’s one or two openings in the spoon carving class coming up Saturday & Sunday Aug 11/12 with Plymouth CRAFT. A semi-new venue for us in Plymouth, the Wildlands Trust building on Long Pond Rd. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/spoon-carving

Same venue in September 14-16 for Jarrod Dahl’s Birch Bark Cannister class. That’s going to be a great class. I have had a 15-minute lesson from Jarrod on them once, so I’m looking forward to learning more about this material, and these ingenious containers.

The format is an intro session Friday night for 2 hours, then a 2-day class Saturday & Sunday. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/birchbark-canisters

Now – on to chairmaking. It’s been about 25 years since I made these chairs with any regularity. In that time, I have changed the way I make most any piece of furniture; and coming back to these chairs is funny. Things I used to sweat over are nothing to me now, and the parts I struggle with today I used to apparently do with some proficiency.

chopping mortises for the slats

Slat mortising – chopping the narrow mortises in the rear posts for the bent slats. I remember first learning how to chop these from the book (MACFAT for short) back in 1978. Sitting on a low bench, the posts pinned between 3 pegs and a wedge, and driving the mortise chisel mostly with shoulder pressure. More like digging a mortise than chopping it.

from 1978 showing JA using shoulder pressure to mortise

Since then, I’ve chopped so many mortises in joined furniture that I can’t see the point of not using a mallet and banging away at it. One of the last emails I got from Alexander asked “how do you hold the posts when slat-mortising?” The answer, never given, is I now hold the chair post on the workbench, either with holdfasts or clamps. And chop the mortise while standing, using a mallet. JA got up off the low bench at some point too, I know in the DVD the post is clamped on the workbench.

JA’s slats are incredibly thin, about 1/8” mortises. She was always pushing to get the chair parts reduced as much as possible. I know those are plenty strong enough, but I like the slats a little more stout. To me, the thin ones feel a little uncomfortable in handling. My chisel, which is English, is 3 1/2-sixteenths. Must be some metric dimension…so I’m making a chair that I know JA would call “wooden.” It’s not a compliment!

mortise chisel, just under 1/4″

After mortising, I shave the parts round-ish from the octagons that I had in the bending form and mortising steps. Spokeshave work, at the shaving horse. This work requires a lot of “feel” – knocking off corners of corners, etc.

spokeshave work to round down the posts to final shape

I use a JA-designed rack to test the rear posts’ positions in the finished chair. This helps to see where to bore the mortises.

checking the rear post alignment

Alexander’s chair is built out of order – the sides are assembled first, then the rear and front section are bored and fitted to do the final assembly. Most post-and-rung chairs were/are build front and back first, then tied together by the side assemblies. My large turned chair I have underway will be done this way, so you’ll see that sequence in contrast to this JA method.

 

The reasoning for making the sides first is that is the direction of the most stress the chair experiences. So the front and rear rungs will just slightly intersect these side rungs, pinning them in place. A double-dose of “belt & suspenders” construction, on top of the wet/dry joint that holds it all together to begin with. After using the rack to “see” the orientation, then I propped the posts in the vise for boring. A long bit extender helps to see the angle I’m boring at, and a level taped to it helps keep things aligned as well.

I have a bit-depth guide clamped onto the bit extender too. Stanley #47 bit depth stop. It goes “twangggg” when it hits the right depth.

Once two posts were bored, I shaved the tenons on 3 rungs and knocked that section together. Then repeat. Then quit. Tomorrow is another day.

I’m really enjoying these ladderbacks, it’s so much fun to explore what for me was my beginnings as a woodworker 40 years ago. I had been planning to delve in this work this year, and talked with Jennie Alexander about it a lot. Then her death a few weeks ago really spurred me on. The ones I’m making now are already sold, but later this month I’m planning on taking orders for them if anyone’s interested. I’ll write details about that later in August, after a trip to begin sorting out JA’s shop.

On that subject, we posted a notice on Jennie’s site that we’ll keep everyone updated when we know more about the upcoming edition of the chair book, as well as ordering information for the DVD. Once we know what’s what, you will too. I’ll post it on JA’s site as well as here and everywhere else we can think of.  http://www.greenwoodworking.com/  

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3 thoughts on “Sunday chairmaking

  1. 3.5/16″ = .219″ which is the equivalent of 5.56 mm. You didn’t mention the age of the tool but I suspect that it’s just a slightly undersized 1/4″ chisel, which in handtool work is functional enough as long as the steel is good.

  2. 7/32″ was ( and probably still is) a pretty common mortise size in England- don’t know why. I have one and use it all the time in lieu of a 1/4″ chisel.

  3. We’re metric now but growing up with Imperial folding 1 yard rules, the US of A rules I see in photos here and elsewhere look ‘wrong’. From your comment Peter, are your rules not marked down to the 32nd division? I’m with Tim 7/32 feels quite normal.
    Quite enjoying your latest run of posts.

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